Book Review: Gods at War by Kyle Idleman

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[Originally Posted on The Gospel Coalition]

I was dangerously close to writing off Kyle Idleman’s Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart. I’m ashamed to say it, but I judged the book by its cover (and back cover). Oh boy, I thought, another discussion of the perils of idolatry in the Christian life—I’ve heard that before. Yet, as I eventually discovered, truth never loses its value.

Author and megachurch pastor Kyle Idleman confirmed my initial fears within the first few pages as he posed the now-familiar eye-opening question: “What if it’s not about statues” (12)? After helping us move beyond a primitive understanding of idolatry, his thesis came to light: “Idolatry isn’t just one of many sins; rather, it’s the one great sin that all others come from. . . . There are a hundred million different symptoms, but the issue is always idolatry” (22).

Elaborating on this theme, Idleman leads us to discover the prevalence of idolatry and the battle for our hearts. “Anything at all can become an idol once it becomes a substitute for God in our lives,” he observes. “The object of your worship will determine your future and define your life. It’s the one choice that all other choices are motivated by” (26, 60).

Following Idleman’s theoretical discussion of idolatry are three practical sections that open the doors to the temples of pleasure, power, and love—revealing the false gods within each. Relying heavily on both cautionary and inspirational narratives, Idleman exposes the devastating results of enthroning these idols in our hearts and offers specific solutions to overcome each one.

Pastoral Tone

Though mildly (and wrongly) unsettled by familiarity of the arguments in the introduction, I was quickly won over by Idleman’s pastoral tone throughout the rest of the book. On each page his purpose is clear—to see false gods dethroned and the true God worshiped. The personal stories, insightful questions, and careful use of Scripture left me feeling as if I was sitting in my pastor’s office receiving counsel. Such counsel is on display, for example, as Idleman dethrones the god of success:

This world’s success puts the emphasis on being self-sufficient and self-reliant, acting as if we’ve got it all figured out. But Jesus redefines a successful life as one that humbly says to God, “I can’t do this on my own. I need your help.” From the world’s perspective, that’s the opposite of what successful people do. (142)

Success is hearing Jesus say to you one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” How will he measure your success? (147)

Audience Assumptions

Just as a counselor’s advice is tailored to each patient, Idleman’s counsel reveals a few assumptions about his target audience—namely, those unfamiliar with the contemporary evils of idolatry. To those who know idols to be more than statues, however, the illustrations might seem simplistic, predicable, and at times pragmatic. Here’s an example:

Can I challenge you to eliminate God’s competition, just for a test, and see what happens?

Turn off the TV.

Log off Facebook.

Turn down the music.

Unplug the game console.

Turn your eyes to the Lord. (124)

Unfortunately, he also seems to assume his audience either already knows the gospel’s content or doesn’t need an explicit reminder. While it’s apparent Idleman understands the good news, he regularly points to Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of our desires (my satisfaction, my purpose, my identity, and so on) while only hinting at how Christ actually fulfills them. (Idleman’s previous bestseller, Not a Fanalso suffers from a lack of robust gospel focus.)

All things considered, though, I’m thankful Idleman raises an important discussion to a new audience. If every book were written to the “Young, Restless, Reformed” crowd, how would the rest of the church hear important truths?

Identification and Replacement

A strength of Gods at War lies in its remedy to idolatry—identification and replacement. In an effort to purge the idols that plague us, it’s easy to overreact and throw good gifts out altogether. Yet Idleman rightly identifies idolatry as valuing gifts above the Giver. As he writes, “The problem is that every gift God gives us can be twisted into a lure to pull us away from him” (83). Rather than demonizing the good gifts God has given us, Idleman encourages readers to see them as blessings pointing to a specific way in which we need Jesus. “Idols are defeated,” he observes, “not by being removed but by being replaced” (92). In other words, Christ meets the need we seek to fill with idols.

While I welcome Idleman’s perspective on and approach to the idolatry discussion, if I were his editor I’d have a few suggested changes.

First, I’d suggest a more complete integration of theory and practice. After all, what good is theory if it doesn’t inform our practice? But after setting the theoretical stage and making the case for the prevalence of idolatry, Idleman moves right on to practical ramifications without hardly ever looking back. The problem, however, is that cautionary tales of lost jobs and broken marriages don’t get to the heart of how and why idolatry destroys. Practical solutions are helpful, but only insofar as they are founded upon Christ’s completed work. Since this connection isn’t, as it deserves, brought to the fore, it will likely be lost on those not looking for it.

Second, the final chapter ends rather abruptly. After showing how idols, like broken cisterns, can’t hold water, Idleman concludes with an invitation from Jesus: “Drink from me and you’ll never thirst again” (238). This glorious statement had me looking forward to a closing chapter unpacking how Christ is the solution to idolatry. As I turned the page, however, all I found were 27 endnotes.

Though each chapter in Gods at War acknowledges Jesus as the solution to the particular idol in view, Idleman never explicitly declares that (or shows how) Jesus is the solution to every idol. In this way, the book ends somewhat incomplete. Since it’s impossible to create an exhaustive list of the ways our hearts succumb to idolatry, failure to point to Christ as the universal solution may leave readers unsure how to conquer a specific, unmentioned idol.

Pastoral Merit

While Idleman’s theoretical discussion of idolatry doesn’t break new ground, the pastoral heart behind the book gives it merit. Though familiar with the terrain, I was pulled along by Idleman’s engaging questions and use of narrative (both biblical and otherwise).

Those who have never heard of the perils of idolatry will find Gods at War a helpful starting point and a great diagnostic tool. While others familiar with the concept may not find Gods at War revolutionary, Idleman’s unique tone might prove helpful nonetheless. After all, this book forces us to interact with many facets of our idolatry—a reality we all need to face.

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